It’s tempting to imagine that procrastination is a fairly recent phenomenon. Without the Internet at their desks, without smartphones in their pockets, how could previous generations possibly have killed an hour, a day, or more avoiding work that needed to be done?

Somehow, they managed.

In 1608, Captain John Smith founded the first British settlement in the Americas in what became Jamestown, Virginia. His account of life in the New World includes a lament that too many of the settlers “procrastinated the time” away. Needing dramatic action to gain the attention of his chronic time-wasters, Smith decreed that “He that will not work shall not eat.”

Smith perhaps implicitly understood that procrastination is rooted in a focus on the here and now over the future. For procrastinators thinking only about what they want to do right now-- not working -- is vastly more pleasant than actually working. Meanwhile, the consequences of slacking off are in the future, often quite distant and abstract by comparison. Smith—rather than waiting for the settlement to collapse from procrastination—offered a very real and immediate cost that tended to focus the mind on what needed to be done.

Research also finds that procrastination particularly plagues those in a negative frame of mind and those who hunger for immediate or emotional rewards.

A new study by Fuschia Sirois uncovers an additional source of procrastination—absorption.

Procrastinators have a tendency to get lost in what they are doing while losing track of everything else. In other words, one key to enjoyable procrastination is the ability to momentarily forget about what you are supposed to be doing. This is what makes the time-wasting so rewarding—instead of worrying minute by minute about impending deadlines or adverse effects, procrastinators get blissfully lost in their distractions.

Four Steps to Stop Procrastinating (Now!)

  1. With low expectations for themselves, procrastinators are excellent both at not starting things and at giving up quickly. You need to show yourself that you can handle your work—and gain something from it. First, take on the most pleasing slice of the thing you don’t want to do. Taking on an interesting part of the task will help you see the benefit of working, and not just the cost. And accomplishing something will help give you the confidence and momentum to continue.
  2. Procrastination thrives when we’re in a bad mood. Before you take on the task at hand, elevate your mood with a quick treat. Eat a candy bar, get out of the office for a 10-minute walk, or listen to your favorite song. Do something you like to do that will change your focus. With a positive mindset, it will be harder to convince yourself that you can’t handle the work that needs to be done.
  3. Procrastination is a triumph of short-term rewards over long-term needs. Because the costs of procrastination are generally off in the future, you need to create a short-term consequence for your procrastination. Give yourself some kind of immediate punishment for not doing what needs to be done. For every hour you waste on the Internet at work, take away an hour of your Netflix time at home that night. For every day you don’t start in on that new project, you have to call your mother-in-law to chat. Choose any kind of consequence as long as it is meaningful and immediate—just like not eating was for meaningful and immediate for John Smith’s fellow settlers. You’ll suddenly discover a short-term incentive to get to work.
  4. Procrastinators are skilled at daydreaming to avoid work. Turn that on its head and use daydreaming as a means of focusing on the rewards of doing the work. Think about the various rewards of having done a good job. Think about how good it will feel to finish this thing, turn in it, and not have to worry about it anymore. Use your tendency to get lost inside a task to pull you into a project instead of away from it.

Sirois, Fuschia. 2014. “Absorbed in the Moment? An Investigation of Procrastination, Absorption and Cognitive Failures.” Personality and Individual Differences 71: 30-34.

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